There was once a merchant who lived close to the royal palace, and had three daughters. They were all pretty, but Maria, the youngest, was the prettiest of the three. One day the king sent for the merchant, who was a widower, to give him directions about a journey he wished the good man to take. The merchant would rather not have gone, as he did not like leaving his daughters at home, but he could not refuse to obey the king’s commands, and with a heavy heart he returned home to say farewell to them. Before he left, he took three pots of basil, and gave one to each girl, saying, ‘I am going a journey, but I leave these pots. You must let nobody into the house. When I come back, they will tell me what has happened.’ ‘Nothing will have happened,’ said the girls.
The father went away, and the following day the king, accompanied by two friends, paid a visit to the three girls, who were sitting at supper. When they saw who was there, Maria said, ‘Let us go and get a bottle of wine from the cellar. I will carry the key, my eldest sister can take the light, while the other brings the bottle.’ But the king replied, ‘Oh, do not trouble; we are not thirsty.’ ‘Very well, we will not go,’ answered the two elder girls; but Maria merely said, ‘I shall go, anyhow.’ She left the room, and went to the hall where she put out the light, and putting down the key and the bottle, ran to the house of a neighbour, and knocked at the door. ‘Who is there so late?’ asked the old woman, thrusting her head out of the window.
‘Oh, let me in,’ answered Maria. ‘I have quarrelled with my eldest sister, and as I do not want to fight any more, I have come to beg you to allow me to sleep with you.’
So the old woman opened the door and Maria slept in her house. The king was very angry at her for playing truant, but when she returned home the next day, she found the plants of her sisters withered away, because they had disobeyed their father. Now the window in the room of the eldest overlooked the gardens of the king, and when she saw how fine and ripe the medlars were on the trees, she longed to eat some, and begged Maria to scramble down by a rope and pick her a few, and she would draw her up again. Maria, who was good-natured, swung herself into the garden by the rope, and got the medlars, and was just making the rope fast under her arms so as to be hauled up, when her sister cried: ‘Oh, there are such delicious lemons a little farther on. You might bring me one or two.’ Maria turned round to pluck them, and found herself face to face with the gardener, who caught hold of her, exclaiming, ‘What are you doing here, you little thief?’ ‘Don’t call me names,’ she said, ‘or you will get the worst of it,’ giving him as she spoke such a violent push that he fell panting into the lemon bushes. Then she seized the cord and clambered up to the window.
The next day the second sister had a fancy for bananas and begged so hard, that, though Maria had declared she would never do such a thing again, at last she consented, and went down the rope into the king’s garden. This time she met the king, who said to her, ‘Ah, here you are again, cunning one! Now you shall pay for your misdeeds.’